Western Visions:
Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril

This article is in five parts. This is part two. To view one of the other parts, click on the numbers below.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

The Yellow Peril Meets The Red Menace

As the nineteenth century ended, America suddenly changed, becoming a small empire after the Spanish-American war, with Spain ceding Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. Guam and the Phillipines, especially, were strategically significant, giving America coaling stations for its fleet in the Pacific, and giving it a close base from which to watch the Yellow Peril of Asia. But instead of calming fears, it heightens them -- the thought of making the Philippines, or any of the other territories, states of the union, becomes a way in which millions of 'dark or yellow-skinned' peoples can enter the United States, become a corrupting influence, and destroy the way of life of its citizens. Of course, immigration was again tightly restricted.

Then in 1905 fears of the Yellow Peril became all too real, when the Japanese smashed the Russian fleet and forced them into a treaty, ending the Russo-Japanese War with a resounding victory for the Japanese. It was the first time an Asian military power bested a Western power, and the entire world took notice.

For a while, Japan had special exemption from immigration restrictions into the United States. Instead, in 1907 Congress asked that Japan 'voluntarily' stop giving visas to Japanese trying to emigrate to the states. But by 1917, an 'Asiatic barred zone' has been created, preventing immigration of any Asian or Pacific Islander.

In 1922, the U.S. Government further enacted fear of the Yellow Peril as law, passing the Cable Act, which revoked the citizenship of any woman who married a foreign national.

World War II: China ostensibly becomes an ally, and Japan the enemy. The Japanese are demonized and persecuted, rounded up in internment camps. LIFE magazine publishes a description of the difference between Chinese and Japanese, to help budding racists identify who to hate, with such unbelievable items as "The Chinese have parchament-yellow complexion...while Japanese have an earthy yellow complexion."

An important component of the Yellow Peril myth is the dehumanizing of the 'other.' In this case, the Japanese are seen as 'unable to feel pain the same way we do,' to be deadened to pain, and by extension to inflict the cruelest of tortures on his victims. The same was said of the Mongol hoardes, the same too of San Francisco chinamen, one of whom a doctor studied and concluded that "their nerve endings are farther inside their skin than ours...and so more resistant to pain."


With the end of World War II and the resounding defeat of the Japanese, it seemed the idea of the Yellow Peril had run its course. But another fear was rising to replace it: the Red Menace.

Russia was an ally during the war, but afterwards it became clear who the next enemy of American domination would be. The communist Russians seemed in direct opposition to the beliefs of America. In fact, it was the threat of communism swallowing up more and more governments that prompted many of our equal rights laws passed here in the United States. By making the U.S. more open and more free, it was hoped that the States would represent a clear alternative to Communism. But then China fell to Communism, and the Yellow Peril was reborn, combined with and heightened by the Red Menace. The Korean War, then the Vietnam War, worked to continue to keep images of the Yellow Peril alive, as conflict with Asians in foreign wars began to replace competition with Asians for jobs at home as the primary lens through which America viewed the far east.

In the 1980's, focus shifted back home again, to the threat to working class jobs by Japanese competition. The Japanese economy was booming, and their products outselling American products. Japanese companies bought numerous American companies, golf courses, and so on. Americans resisted what they saw as a 'foreign takeover.' Many saw the corporate buy-outs as a continuation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor fourty years earlier. Commercials aired which encouraged people to buy products 'Made in the USA.' Japanese cars were smashed with sledgehammers in demonstrations. The threat of the Yellow Peril in America came full circle, once again imagined as a threat to the stability of working-class Americans.

The Yellow Peril has been represented in American media since its very beginning. From songs, to minstrel shows, to books, to movies. Perhaps the most famous of these representations comes not from America but from England, and the story of this character is explored in the following section.

Next: Fu Manchu: The Yellow Peril Personified >>>>>